Wednesday, April 25, 2018

2018 Verizon IndyCar Series First Quarter Report

The IndyCar season disappears at an alarming rate and yet I don't want it to go any slower. A month ago, one race had been completed and we were dying for the next one. Now a quarter of the season is gone after three consecutive weeks of races. In six weeks we will enter the back half of the championship and it won't yet be summer.

Four races do not seem like much and yet it is precious time when it comes to the championship. Nobody has won the championship but for a few drivers we can write off their chances of lifting the Astor Cup at Sonoma.

The universal aero kit was seen as an equalizer after the aero kit-epoch, which saw great disparity between the Chevrolet and Honda teams. With that in mind this first quarter report will subjectively rank the full-time teams through the first four races of the season.

1. Team Penske
Josef Newgarden has won two of the first four races, he has led 106 laps this season, the second most in IndyCar, and he leads the championship with 158 points. We were all worried he would struggle in year one with the team and his hiccups never got him off track. Any concerns over a championship hangover should be squashed. The man is using the tagline "Defend the 1" the season and it appears to be more than a phrase.

While Newgarden is on top, his two past champion teammates are struggling. Will Power finds himself 10th in the championship, 78 points behind his teammate and Simon Pagenaud is 15th in the championship, his worst championship position after four races in his career, and he is 92 points back of Newgarden. Power stood on the podium at Long Beach but has retired from two races. Pagenaud's best finish came at Barber but it was a ninth-place result.

Despite one man carrying the weight, it is Team Penske. The only way this team was not going to be on top was if another team had a driver leading the championship and had won at least two of the first four races. Power or Pagenaud could reel off three consecutive victories, jump to the championship lead and it would stun nobody.

2. Andretti Autosport
Alexander Rossi started the season with three consecutive podium finishes, including a victory at Long Beach from pole position. His 11th-place result at Barber dropped him to second in the championship, 13 points behind Newgarden. Meanwhile, Ryan Hunter-Reay has finishes of fifth, fifth, 20th and second and he sits sixth in the championship on 113 points. Rossi and Hunter-Reay are tied for most top five finishes this season and Andretti Autosport is the only team to have at least one car on podium in each race this season.

The other half of the organization has not been too shabby. Marco Andretti finds himself ninth in the championship, 70 points behind Newgarden and he has three top ten finishes through the first four races. Zach Veach finished fourth at Long Beach but his next best finish was 13th at Barber and the rookie sits 13th in the championship on 77 points, second best of the rookies.

Andretti Autosport has made a big leap forward. In every race this season Andretti Autosport has been in contention for victory and it is the only team that can really say that. Rossi has won, Hunter-Reay is knocking on the door and Andretti is at least in the conversation. Veach is a rookie and is making progressing. This is the best this team has looked heading into May since at least 2014.

3. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
This team has yet to win a race this season but Schmidt Peterson Motorsports has done enough that it should have stood on the top step of the podium by now. James Hinchcliffe has four top ten finishes from the first four races, only one of three drivers to have accomplished that this season and he got his first podium finish of the season at Barber. These results have Hinchcliffe fifth in the championship on 118 points.

Despite his fantastic results Hinchcliffe has not even been the most talked about SPM driver. Robert Wickens has been the darling of the season and 29-year-old Canadian has a second place finish and a fourth place finish in his first four career starts with a victory or at least podium finish at St. Petersburg fall out of his grasp and a gearbox issue cost him a top ten finish at Long Beach. He trails his teammate by 21 points and is eighth in the championship.

This team has to win a race this season and arguably both drivers should win a race this season. Hinchcliffe has made a step forward and Wickens might be the best rookie since Juan Pablo Montoya. This is a team to be excited about.

4. Dale Coyne Racing
For the second consecutive year, S├ębastien Bourdais has Dale Coyne Racing at the sharp end of the grid after the first four races and this is after a less successful opening to the season than last year. He won at St. Petersburg but a pair of 13th place finishes knocked him down a few pegs. A fifth place finish at Barber has him third in the championship, one position better than he was at this time last year. On top of all that, Bourdais is the only driver to have led a lap in every race this season and he has led 103 laps through four races. He also started on pole position at Phoenix.

The second DCR car has not had nearly as close to the same amount of success as Bourdais. Zachary Claman De Melo has made three starts this season but the Canadian rookie's best finish this season is 17th and his best starting position is 16th and he has yet to finish on the lead lap this season. Pietro Fittipaldi made his IndyCar debut at Phoenix and he started tenth in that race but he was the first to retire after brushing the wall exiting turn four after completing 40 laps.

It doesn't appear Bourdais is going to fade away and it feels like the only things out of his control such as sliding into pit crew members and having to serve a penalty or untimely cautions will keep him out of the championship picture. It is still early for Claman De Melo and Fittipaldi but the equipment is there for those two to pick up good results.

5. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing
Along with Newgarden and Hinchcliffe, Graham Rahal is the only other driver with perfect attendance in the top ten this season and all those results have come after adverse situations. He went from dead fucking last on the grid to second at St. Petersburg. At Phoenix, he started 12th and was in the middle of the pack for the entire race and finished ninth. He shot himself in the foot at Long Beach after he spun Simon Pagenaud and a fifth place starting position was wasted. However, through pit strategy and cautions he got back into the top ten and finished fifth. He started 15th at Barber and through the changing conditions he was able to come home in seventh.

Takuma Sato has been good but not great this season. He started in the top five at St. Petersburg but a spin after Scott Dixon ran into him from behind dropped him down the order and he settled for an 12th place finish. He wasn't that far off Rahal at Phoenix and finished 11th. He was slow at Long Beach and right when things were going in the right direction he made contact with Ryan Hunter-Reay and lost a handful of laps. It appeared Barber was going to be another rough day but in the wet he came home to finish eighth from 18th on the grid.

You could make an argument that RLLR could be ahead of DCR considering Bourdais and Rahal are tied on points and Sato has three top fifteen finishes while the second DCR car has yet to finish in the top fifteen. However, let's give DCR the nod because it has a victory and Bourdais looks scary good this year.

6. Chip Ganassi Racing
Remember when I said I thought Chip Ganassi Racing was the fifth best team in IndyCar after Barber? I was wrong. It is the sixth best team. It is head scratching. Scott Dixon has not had a bad season. He finished sixth at St. Petersburg after a penalty for spinning Sato and pit lane speeding; he finished fourth at Phoenix after starting 17th; his worst finish was 11th at Long Beach after a penalty for pitting when the pit lane was closed and he finished sixth at Barber, which seemed about right.

The mistakes stand out. It is not Dixon-esque to plow into a driver from behind going into a corner, nor is it like Dixon to get a penalty for pitting when the pit lane is closed. I think those things are why it feels like Dixon is doing poorly when he really isn't that far off from where he has always been. He has not led a lap through the first four races this season. He did the same thing in 2013 and only led one lap through the first ten races. He would go on to win the championship that season. Dixon isn't done but right now he and Chip Ganassi Racing have some work to do after not being a threat through the first four races.

Then there is Ed Jones, who sits 11th in the championship but he has finished eighth, 20th after having an accident while running second at Phoenix, third at Long Beach and 20th at Barber after a mechanical issue. After watching Ganassi for the better part of two decades I feel like Jones could finish eighth in the championship this year and get fired because he didn't do enough. He is tied with Tony Kanaan, the man he replaced, on 79 points. If he is going to be tied with the man he replaced then why did Ganassi hire him in the first place? Ganassi will hire another driver if Jones is going to finish in the vicinity of Kanaan.

7. A.J. Foyt Racing
Good news! A.J. Foyt Racing is off the bottom. Bad news! It is only marginally better and part of its rise is because there are two new teams on the grid.

Tony Kanaan has been Tony Kanaan with results of eleventh, eighth, eighth and 18th and he is tied with Jones on 79 points. Those are great results for A.J. Foyt Racing considering where the team has been for the last 35 years. He is in a good position and if Kanaan can consistently bring the car home in the back of the top ten then good for him and Foyt will be happy.

Matheus Leist has been another story. The fairy tale ended early at St. Petersburg. We are a long way away from his third place starting position at St. Petersburg. The results have been getting better as he has finished on the lead lap in the last two races but he is nowhere near where he was in March when everyone perked up and thought IndyCar might have a young talent ready to win immediately and A.J. Foyt Racing may have found its answer for the next five years.

8. Ed Carpenter Racing
I am not sure what the crossover will be with readers of this and Premier League fans but Ed Carpenter Racing is Southampton. A few years ago it was a fun team to watch with exciting young talent and the thought was it could breakthrough to compete for a top position. However, the young talent has moved on and now it is in the bottom three.

This is sad to see. It is early but the first four races have not been kind to Spencer Pigot. Last year, he had stunning drives that turned the heads of many. If it wasn't for his spins at Barber no one would have blamed you for forgetting he was on the grid this season. He has finished a lap down in every race. He has started in the top fifteen once and despite all these lackluster results he is somehow only five points behind Simon Pagenaud. So maybe it isn't that bad or Pagenaud is doing a lot worse than we think.

Jordan King has been good but it has been frustrating to watch. Not all the bad results are his fault. He brushed the wall at St. Petersburg while running in the top ten. His brakes let him down at Long Beach and cost him another top ten and then he made a bonehead move and spun Bourdais while King was a lap down. Somehow at Barber he finished on the lead lap despite multiple hairy moment and going off in the wet. The one thing King has to stop doing is tearing up the race car in third practice. He has done it in every third practice session this season. He is bound to cost this team more money than it ever hoped to spend.

Ed Carpenter has been the best Ed Carpenter Racing driver and he has only made one start. His seventh at Phoenix is the team's only top ten finish this season. Despite everything Carpenter has said, this team is not the best it has ever been as a two-car operation.

9. Harding Racing
This is a new team. Harding Racing is still developing. It has made its first road course start and street course start in the first four races. Gabby Chaves has done well for a little team. The other thing to consider is Chaves is going to places he has not been for a while. Three of the first four tracks Chaves has not raced at since his rookie season in 2015 and he had never raced at Phoenix prior to this year.

Harding Racing is going to have rough results this year and whether 2018 is successful or not is not just about getting on-track results but this team not getting discouraged during the rough times and feeling it needs to flip house without having any furniture.

10. Carlin
I don't think anyone expected Carlin to be finishing in the top five out of the box but this season has been one growing pain after another and right when it appeared the team had made a breakthrough after Charlie Kimball finished tenth at Long Beach and Max Chilton and Kimball both started on row seven at Barber, Kimball is knocked out after ten laps and Max Chilton breaks down right when the race was set to restart on Monday. It can only get better from here.

Who Is Out Of It Already?
Back in March, in the first Track Walk of the season, I went over how important it was for a driver to have a good start to a season in terms of championship hopes. To refresh the conversation, only 18 of 87 champions since the 1947 AAA National Championship season have started the season with a finish outside the top ten in the first race of the season.

The last champion not to have a podium finish in the first four races was Gil de Ferran in 2000 and only three other champions since 1947 have taken more than four races to get a podium finish (Chuck Stevenson in 1952, Jimmy Bryan in 1956 and Al Unser in 1985). De Ferran is the only champion since 1947 to take more than four races to get a top five finish. No champions since 1947 has taken more than four races to get a top ten finish.

Through four races this season Spencer Pigot, Gabby Chaves, Matheus Leist and Max Chilton are the only full-time drivers without a top ten finish. The full-time drivers without a top five finish are Marco Andretti, Tony Kanaan, Takuma Sato, Simon Pagenaud and Charlie Kimball.

I am not going to rule out Andretti, Kanaan, Sato or Pagenaud... yet. Three of those four drivers have multiple top ten finishes this season and all four have had success in the Indianapolis 500, a double points race.

It is nothing personal but Pigot, Chaves, Leist, Chilton and Kimball are not going to win the championship this year.

Where Do We Stand With the Universal Aero Kits?
Other than Phoenix (even know numbers say otherwise), every race has been as good as you could hope for and the issues with Phoenix might be something that the universal aero kit alone could not solve.

We are probably somewhat concerned about what will happen at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Indianapolis 500 has been tremendous during the DW12-era and we are afraid that will be ruined. However, I think the good news is it is going to be tough to ruin the Indianapolis 500 because when the lowest number of lead changes in the last six years was 34 lead changes the series has some wiggle room. Only three other Indianapolis 500s have had more than 25 lead changes. If this year's race only has 26 lead changes no one would should be bitching about the race being worse, in fact I bet most people would not really notice the difference between 26 lead changes and 36 lead changes.

With what we have seen through the first four races I don't think we are going to see the Indianapolis 500 look drastically different. We are still going to hold our breath until practice begins but hopefully next week's test at the Speedway will calm some nerves.

The only races I am concerned about are the ovals because those seem to be more of a crapshoot and people are finicky about ovals more so than road and street courses. Will Texas be a pack race and how much will Texas come down to whether Firestone can find the right tire compound? Will Gateway have the same problem as it did last year? It was a great crowd last year and Newgarden's ballsy pass for the victory on Pagenaud saved the day but people can be turned off quickly by a semi-dull race and Gateway deserves better than that.

What To Watch For In Quarter Two?
I think we are all wondering if Andretti Autosport and Honda can keep its hold on the Indianapolis 500. The last two years have been an impressive run of domination and Andretti Autosport is looking for its third consecutive Indianapolis 500 victory. Meanwhile, I am sure we are wondering if Dale Coyne Racing can repeat its 2017 performance and whether or not Schmidt Peterson Motorsports can turn it around.

Can any other Chevrolet team please stand up? A.J. Foyt Racing is having a better year but the truth is there is a massive split between Team Penske and the other four Chevrolet teams and that is kind of disappointing. Even worse is I am not sure what Chevrolet team or driver could step up. Kanaan seems like the obvious choice but he has only six podium finishes in the last 53 races and three of those have come at Texas with one at Fontana, one at St. Petersburg and one at Road America. Look at it this way, Chevrolet drivers not named Newgarden, Power, Pagenaud and Kanaan have combined for two top ten finish through the first four races and one of those top tens was the part-timer Carpenter.

If there is one final thing to watch between now and Texas it is how the championship gets jumbled up. With double points at the Indianapolis 500 we have been accustomed to seeing a few drivers make big leaps in the championship and a few drops take noticeable drops. Some of those movers are just a flash in the pan and the results will correct themselves by the time we reach Sonoma but could a strong May and early June bring the likes of Power or Pagenaud back into the championship picture? Could these six weeks be the determining factor over whether or not Bourdais and DCR can be title contenders? Can an Andretti driver take the point and be the hunted heading into the summer?

The beautiful thing about the IndyCar schedule is there is no lull. We get started and there are a few races to feel out how things could play out but not long after that we are at a point where we are finding out who can swim and who have sunk. The entire second half of the season is a staring contest and those who blink are quickly dispatched from the championship picture. The season is still new but soon it will cutthroat and the business end of the schedule will jump us from behind and leave us wonder where another season has gone.